Pages

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

No Good Deed...

...ever goes unpunished. I can’t say that I ever understood that old saying as much as I do right now. At mail call tonight, I received twelve emails from close friends and supporters, all of which trended towards the irate, vis-a-vis my piece on Steven Long.

It strikes me that I must have been unclear on a few points, so please allow me to clarify an overly-nuanced position.

First of all, yes, I know what he did. Trust me when I tell you that Steven Long is not much liked around here. No one who kills a child lives a peaceful life in prison. Don’t think for a second that it was easy for me to speak with him, or be seen speaking with him. It was a test, one I nearly failed on multiple occasions. Everything is seen around here, and when I went outside to work with Steven on this, it cost me a chunk of my reputation back here on Level 2. I wasn’t asking you to disregard his past actions. I think I very clearly expressed this in the entry. Nor was I arguing that he should be set free, and that you should invite him over for tea and crumpets or to listen to Antonin Dvorak. Frankly, I don’t much like Steven Long, and I am not asking for you to like him, either. If I never have to say another word to him or about him for the rest of my life, I’d be quite tickled pink.

That said, doing what is right is seldom synonymous with doing what is popular. The point of the piece was not to start a Steven Long Fan Club, but rather to show that the State of Texas is using rage - your rage, my rage - to kill people in violation of the Constitution. That Steven is mentally retarded is beyond question. The Supreme Court of the United States has ruled that killing such people is a violation of the 8th Amendment. All I was attempting to show is that they are breaking the law here. Period. Morality doesn’t get vacation time when the weather turns ugly. Its called having a principle, and sticking to it. Because if you toss your beliefs by the wayside every time they become difficult to carry around, then they can’t have been worth a s*** to begin with, can they? Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul.

Dislike Steven. Fine. Hate him; I’m cool with that. Tax the hell out of his commissary account (and everyone else like him, me included) to start a program where victims of violent abuse can get some psychological therapy. I’m for that; just show me where to sign up. But after all of that, stick the S.O.B. in a cell to rot for the rest of his life. And do this not because its the trend, or “cool”, but because its the law. More importantly: do it because it is right.

I’m surrounded by the broken, the evil, the lost. It is not always easy for me to see the right way to proceed with some of these guys. It would be easier to ignore them completely, to focus only on myself, my goals, my needs. That seems to be the opinion of many of you, that I am somehow “better” than Steven, that I shouldn’t give him the time of day. Don’t you see what you are asking of me? I’ve already tried that mode of living, and it didn’t work out so great, did it? This situation with Steven is screwed up. I get it. But if you discard my position, what is left? The gallows. So, make sure you understand which side of that line you are standing on, before you toss dirt in my face. It’s not easy standing beside someone like him to make a point. But I’d rather do that and face opprobrium than sit hand in hand with those who see death as a convenient tool of social policy. Kind of funny that the guy with “no conscience” is the one having to hand out lessons on ethics.


© Copyright 2010 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Poetry by Gene Walker

The Flow of Morning
By Gene Walker

A crow does a drunkard's dance 
looting the weeds with assiduous eyes.

Her movements are sudden and fierce 
and a hundred feet away 
I hear the hunger of her young.

I see the quivering heart of 
the moth, whose dreams of immolation 
end under the soaring sun.

The flow of morning 
swallows up the sound 
of this machinery, and 
like this poem, 
does a drunkard's dance 
outside my window.

And though I have giant wings 
I stalk the weeds 
with this delicate staccato 
still caught in my throat.



Labyrinth
By Gene Walker

The sun comes out in sympathy 
and lends me a face for the day.

It is loathsome and defiant, 
an old man's skin, 
misshapen and askew, jewelry 
dangling from my temple.

I have come to see the names 
for myself. Like the sparrow, 
tentatively, one and two at a 
time until the labyrinth is 
filled.

By night, they soar in 
the resplendent light of 
our lithium powered brains. 
Glowing like planets 
yet to be named.

I brought an ancient instamatic 
and my list of plagues 
but my name does not appear.

In this snaking line, 
I am just another 
former beauty, 
seeking self and sleep 
from a tiny capsule 
as my number nears.


So Far Across the Yard
By Gene Walker

Her father's tools have turned to rust 
while she was learning to die, 
her towering bones now crammed 
into heat – rotted boxes,
curbside for Monday morning pick up: 
fancy fruit.

A few have come to touch these too
ls, to tell us what he did to her

the heavy lead like hammers 
as big as the crates they lay in, 
empty wooden tombs 
now void of any instruments 
except a red – brown dust

The grime of life 
and living.

We are safe now, so far across the yard 
free to fly back to our, 
tiny, ten- fingered, little boy bodies, 
free to see the shapes for ourselves.

She has collected one of every leaf 
that has fallen she left, 
and still he is here,

his piercing insect eye 
squinting at the squatting wire body 
before him, my own shapeless little tree 
beyond the glass. His shadow 
seizes me, and even today 
his eyes are your eyes, and at night 
they are a myriad moving reflections, 
a fabulous guilded moon. . .

and I am his earth.


Longevity
By Gene Walker

I cannot sustain your voyages, 
these corrosive mingling’s of 
hydrogen and oxygen,
seeking the green rivers of your blooms.

The ants in your throat. 
the carvings on your body,
your graphitied limbs.

It is the air that breathe
that is now stalking your longevity,
this vessel for my mind's plagues

Your waterless spheres are now collapsed, 
sunken in the enormous pressure
that now threatens your capillaries.

They too conspire against us, 
as we abandon our skins
to count our ribs,

with them,  you shall perish, 
without them, I shall

And as we jettison our empty and entangled nets, 
the last silver fish is blue again, 
searching the underwater winds
to tell his tale
to the gravity of silence
between us.


Gene Walker 1455333
Estelle Unit
264 FM 3478
Huntsville, TX 77320


Mr Walker was born in Houston, Texas. He later attended Rhode Island School of Design where he received his bachelor of Fine Arts and bachelor of Architecture in 1984. He lived in Boston and Manhattan after graduating and returned to Texas in 1998. His poem “Longevity” was recognized with a first place award by PEN America’s Prison writing program in 2011 and in 2014 his memoir “Feasts Beneath the Cottonwood Tree” received their third place honors.  His work has also appeared on Prisonwriters.com and Minutesbeforesix.com. He has served 9 years on a 14 year sentence and will be paroled in November of 2016. He lives and works in The Woodlands, Texas where he is residential architect.


Friday, June 4, 2010

Cracked? Not So Much

Earlier this tear, Renée Feltz wrote an excellent article for the Texas Observer entitled “Cracked”, wherein she documented the many systematic errors which exist in the process that the State of Texas uses to determine if a condemned inmate is mentally retarded. The piece is an example of investigative reporting at its best: well researched and documented; timely; and as apolitical as possible, given the subject matter. I encourage you to read Cracked in its entirety; I have a feeling that once you do, the Texas Observer will probably find its way onto your browsers favorites list.

As it happens, I actually knew the subject of the article, Daniel Plata. In 2007, we lived one section apart on C-Pod, and so went to adjoining outside rec cages quite often. I have no psychological training beyond PSY101, which certainly does not touch on how to design a rubric for testing the mentally retarded. My observations are, therefore, purely those of a layman, so take them as such. That said, Daniel had real cognitive deficits, which were blatantly obvious to anyone who bothered to pay attention. He was widely known in the Row as “an Atkins case,” in reference to the standard set in Atkins v Virginia. To me, it pushes far, far beyond the limits of credibility that any licensed clinical psychologist would not have noticed in a matter of mere moments that Mr Plata lacked a real understanding of what was going on in the world around him.

I liked Daniel Plata; I should admit that upfront. He was a decent, soft-spoken man, who had the courage to be both Mexican and anti-gang, which is an extremely rare combination around here. He prayed the Rosary several times a day, and when you spoke to him, he earnestly attempted to listen and understand, though he was often embarrassed when he couldn’t grasp the subject matter at hand. His English was not very good, but then again, neither was his Spanish, to be honest with you. My most vivid memory of Plata occurred outside. It was late afternoon, and the moon was out at maybe ¼ phase. He seemed somewhat entranced with it, and eventually I had to ask him what he was thinking about. He jumped a little when I spoke; I think he had honestly forgotten that he was not alone. After a moment of silence, he explained that he didn’t understand “por qué se cambia la luna algunos días” (why the moon changes some days)? I smiled, and tried to explain it to him using only words, but quickly determined that I was going to need to use different tactics. Utilizing what was at hand, I converted the circular drain into the sun, the basketball into the Earth, and a crunched up coke can into the moon. After a few minutes of moving them all around in circles, I succeeded in simultaneously looking like a dumbass to the guys inside (who had no idea what I was doing) and in getting the point across. He was beaming with pleasure, which was pretty contagious. I later learned that he immediately went back to his section and spent the rest of the night explaining his new discovery to anyone who would listen. I was truly overjoyed to learn of Daniels reversed and subsequent life sentence.

When reading an article such as “Cracked,” I think it is tempting to assume that some “good” will inevitably come to pass. How horrible, we think; I’m just glad that someone important will have a chance to do something about this. I’m not sure if such comments constitute simple moral evasion, or maybe just signify a coping mechanism for dealing with a sense of post-modern ennui. Whatever their real significance, my point here is that nobody more “important” than you will ever read “Cracked,” or any article calling for a change to the status quo. As cliché as this quote has become in the years since Ghandi spoke it, you really do have to be the change you want to see in the world. All the rest is wasted time, wasted energy, wasted life.

As good as “Cracked” is, it merely points to the existence of a judicial iceberg. Most of the mentally retarded men here have no such advocate as Ms Feltz, and Dr. Denkowski is not the only “Dr Death” tirelessly working to buttress a weary and corrupt capital punishment scheme. I’d like to add my own two very tarnished cents to Ms Feltz’s exceptional work, and I will do so using the case of Steven Lynn Long #999514.

Mr Long and Mr Platas intellectual motors could be said to race in the same league, but they are very different types of men. Plata was basically a big, happy oaf, sort of like a lost puppy dog willing to follow just about anyone back home. Not so Steven. Looking into his eyes is like seeing an open wound. He has literally been abused by everyone he has ever known, and reading his case file made my heart physically hurt.

As is so often the case when taking a superficial look at capital crimes, the facts seem to cry out for the harshest punishment legally available. It is not my place to excuse or condone or pardon Steven the mistakes he has made in his life. Regardless of what was done to precipitate Mr Long finding himself standing in front of a judge, the courts are supposed to blindly present him with a fair trial, something which absolutely was not done in this case. Not by a long shot. At some point in the future, I may actually break down the mechanics of his trial for you, but for now I want to focus on the issue at hand: that the Lone Star State continues to blatantly disregard both precedent and nationally recognized standards of decency, and that they do so both knowingly and willingly, in order to send mentally retarded men to Death Row.

For starters, here you can read a psychological assessment conducted on Mr Long by Dr Daneen Milam. If you read it, be sure to take it to its bitter conclusion; like a good horror novel, it gets more shocking as it progresses. Dr Daneen’s credentials are clearly laid out in point one and I think it should be patently obvious that she is more than qualified to analyze someone like Mr Long. This is exactly the type of mental health review that should be completed before a trial, not after it.

If the report doesn’t outrage you, then consider this; as a taxpayer, you are ultimately footing the bill for Mr Long’s trial and appeal, neither of which were legal in the first place, and which will ultimately be reversed. Whatever Mr. Long’s sins, the choice to prosecute him for death was made by the District Attorney of Dallas County. You have only him to thank for the waste of several million dollars which ultimately could have been better spent on schools. Mark my words: they will be wasted funds. You can read into that whatever you like; this one is mine.

A few items rapidly came to mind as I read the report. The first was surprise that Steven would agree to display such personal information in a public forum. I had a chance to discuss this with him the other day, when I recreated in F-Sections dayroom. I don’t think he really knew what to make of my questioning his motives, so used to criticism is he. Once he understood that I was not ridiculing him, he admitted that there were a lot of things in the report that were “bad”, but concluded with, “I don’t care what happens to me. What they are doing is wrong. I don’t want the same thing to happen to anyone else.” In case you missed it, this is called empathy, and it is a quality that nobody back here is supposed to be able to manifest. And yet, I keep coming across it in spades. His decision rings a chord one octave lower than Kevin Vargas: a desire to change the world for the better, even at great personal cost.

Another item which struck me upon reading the evaluation was the mountain of information which was not told to the jury. You will see this scathing criticism made by Dr Milam on many occasions. There is really only one way to explain such a plethora of information not being adequately researched and prepared to viewing by the jury: sheer incompetence on the part of Mr Long’s trial counsel (another item I seem to be confronted with on a nearly constant basis). Pay special attention to points ten and thirteen for some egregious examples of this omission of needed data.

There was a total and systematic failure by education officials to correctly identify and address Steven’s needs as a child (see point eleven). Does anyone really doubt the point that if he had received proper special education treatment instead of consistently being “placed” in subsequent grades, that he would not currently live on Death Row? Whatever Mr Long’s ethical failings later in life, we in society clearly turned out backs on him first. One of these days, we are finally going to figure out that the human detritus we toss into the wake of our techno-commercial preoccupations never truly goes away. This living refuse bides its time in shadows and silence, and eventually gets its revenge. Where the devil was the CPS during Steven’s early life, when he was given a 12 pack of beer for his 13th birthday? As I said, it’s enough to make ones heart hurt. Point number twenty-seven literally made me put the report down and do some sets of push-ups, so guilty and angry did I feel to have had this man sentenced to die in my name (I was, after all, still technically a citizen at the time of Steven’s conviction).

The most important factor at present is this: Steven Long has been tested four times now for mental retardation, and in all four tests he scored a 62 or a 63 in the WAIS-III. He erred in exactly the same ways on all four tests, which were administrated over a period of several years. Even an individual with a genius level IQ and eidetic memory could not have clustered his scores so closely. It is statistically impossible that someone with Steven’s IQ could remember exactly how he answered in a test given over 24 months prior, and then replicate these answers to a degree that a professional psychologist might be fooled. This equivalency of scores annihilates the prosecutor’s charge of “malingering”, to state the case in simple terms.

Now, he did what he did. Though Steven regrets many of the choices he has made in life, that is really immaterial from an ethics standpoint. I also do not condone Steven’s behavior on the Row. It is, frankly, inexcusably bad. That, too, is immaterial to the issue of whether he should have been sent here at all. My defense of him is entirely based on principle. What matters going forward is: how are we as a society going to respond to him? Texas has clearly made its choice: keep this man in a 60 square foot cage until the courts can rubber stamp his life into the ground. I feel we should take another path: there are secure prisons where people like Mr Long can live out their lives in a structured and limit-controlled environment. The functions of “Justice” would be served, namely to prevent society from experiencing further harm at Mr Long’s hands. At the same time, we gain the ability to have acted nobly, rather than committing the final act in a long chain of moral evasions. Texas is known nationwide for executing the mentally retarded. (Even the cartoon Family Guy has made direct reference to this fact.) I think that your elected officials believe that this is a non-issue, which bathes them in a terribly poor light, but that is a subject for another day. If you are a Texas resident, and this issue resonates with you, consider writing your State Rep a short email. Tell them that executing the mentally retarded is not an acceptable act in a truly moral society, and that it is past time to bring this wretched practice to an end.


“If everyone howled at every injustice, every act of barbarism, every act of unkindness, then we would be taking the first step toward a real humanity.”


Nelson DeMille.







Photos of Steven Long


If anyone would like to write to Steven his details are:

Steven Lynn Long #999514
Polunsky Unit
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351



© Copyright 2010 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Art and Poetry by Joseph Dole

Mixed Media  10/2017
water color, pen and marker
11x14

Mixed Media 9/2017
water color and pencil
12x12


American Supermax
By Joseph Dole 
(Written while confined in Tamms Supermax)

A guard informed me upon arrival
     that there are benefits to this isolation.
He promoted the fact that we are
     now all safe from gang retaliation.
I had to ask: “But what of the
     retaliation of the prison administration?”
He smiled cryptically as he
     enjoyed this in ecstatic contemplation.

None of what I was experiencing
     was making me feel safe.  But then, by “grace”,
I saw a new definition.  I was
     “safe” from my family´s loving embrace.
I was “safe” from having education
     taking ignorance´s place.
I was “safe” from recreation
     keeping my heart´s healthy pace.

How I wish I could articulate this
     quasi existence that I have grown to hate.
Or get an answer to why so many
     strangers sadistically enjoy my monotonous fate.

They say societal enlightenment takes time,
     but what if it takes longer than your life
        and you are forced to wait?












Joseph Dole K84446
Stateville Correctional Center
P.O. Box 112
Joliet, IL 60434
Joseph Dole is 40 years old.  Born in Saginaw, Michigan, he moved to Illinois when he was 8 years old.  He has been continuously incarcerated since the age of 22, and spent nearly a decade of his life entombed at the notorious Tamms Supermax Prison in complete isolation (Tamms was shuttered in 2013 after an intense campaign by human rights groups, and the families and friends of prisoners who were confined and tortured there).

Mr. Dole is currently serving a life-without-parole sentence after being wrongly convicted of a gang-related, double murder.  He continues to fight that conviction pro se, and has recently uncovered evidence suppressed by the State, which proves that the State´s star witness committed perjury on the stand.

His first book A Costly American Hatred (available as both a paperback and e-book) is an in-depth look at how America´s hatred of “criminals” has led the nation down an expensive path that not only ostracizes and demonizes an overgrowing segment of the population, but is also now so pervasive that it is counterproductive to the goals of reducing crime and keeping society safe;  wastes enormous resources; and destroys human lives.  Anyone who is convicted of a crime is no longer considered human in the eyes of the rest of society.  This allows them to be ostracized, abused, commoditized and disenfranchised.

Mr. Dole´s second book, Control Units and Supermaxes: A National Security Threat, details how long-term isolation units not only pose grave threats to inmates, but also guards who work there and society as a whole.

 He has also been published in Prison Legal News, The Journal of Prisoners on Prisons, The Mississippi Review, Stateville Speaks Newsletter, The Public I Newspaper, Scapegoat and numerous other places on-line such as www.realcostofprisons.org and www.solitarywatch.com among others.  His writings have also been featured in the following books: Too Cruel Not Unusual Enough (ed. By Kenneth E. Hartman, 2013); Lockdown Prison Heart (iUniverse, 2004); Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People´s Gude to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time (James Kilgore, 2015); Hell is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement (The New Press, 2016).

Mr. Dole´s artwork has been displayed in exhibits in Berkeley, CA, Chicago, and New York.  He has also won four PEN Writing Awards for Prisoners, among others.

He is both a jailhouse journalist and jailhouse lawyer, as well as an activist and watchdog ensuring Illinois public bodies are in compliance with the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.

You can see more of his work on his Facebook Page

He will respond to all letters.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

…And Yet, I’m Still No Better Looking

(Note: This entry was originally posted on Facebook May 10th 2010)

One of the few positive things which can be said about F-Pod is that it is at least very quiet. Having lived next door to serial rap artists and total nutters, this advantage cannot be understated. The doors back here on Level 2 and 3 are sealed up in a way far more complete then on Level 1, which were, frankly, already pretty bad. You tend to feel as if you are the only person in the world back here sometimes, especially at night. Every once in a while, however, something will kick off, and people will start banging on the doors, and it sounds a bit like distant thunder. This happens quite often back here: in the 49 days I’ve spent on Level, I have seen 6 “use of force” scenarios, three gassings, and one fight between “Baby Boy” and Officer Mendoza (which ended with the inmate – wearing leg restraints and handcuffs – having his head beaten into the wall and Officer Mendoza spraying himself in the face with his own mace). People just tend to have shorter fuses back here. I’ve become convinced that these doors have something to do with it.

In the process of examining this hypothesis, I began to read up on SHU Syndrome, a term I have heard about for years but have never researched. Not surprisingly, Secure Housing Unit Syndrome is probably something you have never heard of before. The term was coined, to the best of my knowledge, by Dr. Craig Haney and Dr. Stuart Grassian, a psychiatrist at Harvard University Medical School. The syndrome describes a constellation of medical and physical impairments directly related to long-term solitary confinement. In the case of Madrid v. Gomez 889 F. Supp. 1146,1228 (N.D. Cal 1995), Haney observed that:

“At Pelican Bay 80 percent of the inmates suffered from anxiety, nervousness, severe headaches, and chronic lethargy or tiredness. Over half complained of nightmares, heart palpitations and fear of impending nervous breakdown. Again, over eighty percent complained of ruminations, over-sensitivity to stimuli, irrational bursts of anger, and social withdrawal. Half reported violent fantasies, mood swings and chronic depression. Almost half reported hallucinations amongst other percepted distortions. A quarter of the men at Pelican Bay had seriously contemplated suicide.

These symptoms manifested themselves in disturbing ways. One inmate ripped the sprinkler head off the ceiling of his cell and tried to swallow it. The same inmate also attempted to gouge his wrists with a broken plastic spoon. When interviewed by Dr. Haney, the inmate said, ‘I get dizzy spells, scared, nervous, shaking, crying. I hear voices telling me to tear up my mattress. Demons come out. I see them… I never saw them (before coming to the Secure Housing Unit).’”


These instances of irrational behavior are horrid to contemplate, and even more hideous to behold. Until a few weeks ago, I lived in the house in which “Little Flo” carved his face up before cutting his throat. Two doors down is the cell where “Squirrel” dug his eye out and ate it – the only he had left, after a previous and similar act in the county jail. Then you have the religiously inspired insanity of “Cuba” who circumcised himself in his cell with a pencil sharpener, because TDCJ wouldn’t do it for him. Now, you might object to my hypothesis at this point and declare that these men were already mentally deranged before being placed in solitary confinement cells. If that is your theory, it is a pretty damning commentary on the state of our judiciary, that such men would even be sentenced to death in the first place. Frankly, either way you choose to lean, the situation is badly, horribly broken.

The reality of SHU Syndrome is well documented and acknowledged by prison officials. Despite this, the construction of Control Units continues unabated. After all, it wont be your son or brother or father who will have to survive an environment designed to manufacture madness. Why should you care, right? Here is why (ethical reasons put to the side, obviously): 94% of those presently incarcerated will one day be free. To quote Dr. Grassian:

“It’s kind of like kicking and beating a dog and keeping it in a cage until it gets as crazy and as vicious and wild as it can possibly get and then one day you take it out into the middle of the streets of San Francisco or Boston and you open the cage and you run away. That’s no favor to the community.”


I’d like to add a little something to the conversation, if I may. I have been held in isolation cells for slightly more than four of my five years incarcerated. I have experiences a great many of the previously listed symptoms first-hand, my least favorite being the periods of dizziness. I have learned how to endure most any form of bodily pain, but this vertigo absolutely cripples the mind, which is perhaps why it vexes me so. After a few weeks on Level 3, I also noticed that I was far more physically exhausted than normal, and was sleeping several hours longer than is my custom, with zero increase in energy or vitality. Once I had detected this patter, the little OCD gremlin in my head went into overdrive, and I began to poll the guys around me. You can see the results here

I wasn’t able to speak with everyone on Level, for a number of reasons. To start with, a few of the guys just plain don’t like me, which is their prerogative. Several others were so heavily medicated (“Birdman”, Paul Devoe) that they re only awake when they eat. That said, I managed to poll 20 of them, which represents a statistically large segment of the population currently on Level. I think the results are fairly interesting: a 2.4 hour increase in daily sleep-time after just 30 days on Level 2 or 3. I think this speaks to a root cause quite a bit more complicated than simple boredom could explain. I am not adequately educated enough to make any real statements about this that are not anecdotal, but it does make one wonder what a real psychologist would say, were he to conduct a poll of his own.

I am qualified, however, to come to a rather cynical conclusion about the citizenry of a state who, by large majorities, claims to follow a religion whose main tenets include: brotherly love, forgiveness, and the blessedness of those who give mercy. That conclusion is this: turns out, you can’t spell h-y-p-o-c-r-I-s-y without T-e-x-a-s.

To learn more about the ongoing fight against control units, please see this link.



© Copyright 2010 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker. All rights reserved.